The latest review of my new book, "Code Warriors," from today's Wall Street Journal:
Cracking the Cold War
The NSA knew Brezhnev’s waist size, his wife’s problems, his opinions about U.S. leaders and whether his negotiating positions were ploys.
In “Code Warriors,” Stephen Budiansky, who has already written ably on World War II codebreaking, offers an exciting but also challenging account of the National Security Agency’s efforts to discover the Soviet Union’s secrets—challenging because he does not shun the necessary details in explaining code, codebreaking and how systems in the East and West changed during the years.
In doing so, he provides an intelligence history of the United States during the Cold War, one that ranges from U.S. “ferret flights” in the 1950s, often off the Baltic coast of the Soviet Union—designed to provide information on air defenses—to some of its more serious failures. These included the Cuban Missile Crisis (the NSA failed to warn the Kennedy administration about the arrival of Soviet SS-4 missiles); intelligence analysis prior to the surprisingly vast Tet offensive against South Vietnam in 1968; and the treatment of the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964. It was believed that North Vietnam twice attacked a U.S. ship, and this led Congress to grant the president enhanced war powers. In fact, bad intelligence made Navy officers think they were under attack a second time. “NSA’s inexperience in intelligence analysis and frantic efforts to supply the White House with information” led to inaccurate conclusions and “guesswork,” Mr. Budiansky concludes.
Much of the tale is unedifying, with many of the leading figures in the intelligence community paying more attention to bureaucratic turf wars than to fighting the Cold War. If the CIA is held up for particular obloquy, it joins the Army, Navy and Air Force, especially the last two. There is praise for the NSA but also much criticism: “a system ripe for intellectual corruption . . . self-justifying assurance . . . reflexive defensiveness . . . hoarding information . . . vast multilayered bureaucracy . . . blunders, scandals and bureaucratic miscalculations.” The NSA is criticized for an extremely cozy relationship with Nixon’s White House, one driven by its attempt to promote its standing in the corridors of Washington power. And so on.
Less emphasis is placed on the NSA’s successes, but they are discussed. The role of the NSA’s global signals-intelligence network in providing reassurance about the contrast between bold Soviet threats and more modest actions is seen as helping limit the danger of nuclear war and thus allowing the strategy of containment to work. Helped by agents in place as well as technology, the NSA repeatedly intercepted Soviet communications, ensuring that, as one NSA director later noted, “in the mid-1970s, NSA had access to just about everything the Russian leadership said to themselves and about one another. . . . We knew Brezhnev’s waist size, his headaches, his wife’s problems, his kids’ problems, his intentions on the Politburo with regard to positions, his opinion on American leadership, his attitude on negotiating positions.” The last, Mr. Budiansky argues, helped Henry Kissinger outmaneuver Soviet negotiations in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mr. Budiansky makes no bones about the crimes of communist regimes or, indeed, about the damage done by American press reports on secret operations. But he also claims that “the cryptologic struggle that took place in the shadows behind the shadows was as morally ambiguous as everything about the Cold War.” In fact, the NSA performed admirably pursuing confrontation short of conflict and limited war strategies in the face of the prospect of thermonuclear cataclysm. Much of the American public was unable to accept the serious dangers posed by communist expansionism, and the KGB and the Soviet military had far more influence on Soviet policy-making than the intelligence community did in the U.S.
The faults noted by Mr. Budiansky existed but, alongside the bureaucratic rigidity and mistakes he discusses, there was also a greater willingness to accept internal disagreements than in the Soviet system. In particular, the Soviets proved better at descriptive intelligence gathering than at its analytic intelligence counterpart: They found it difficult to put together the empirical pieces. Although the individual KGB directorates could perform well, they could not integrate the information provided by different sources as well as their American and British counterparts.
Mr. Budiansky notes the tendency of analysis to buttress a priori assumptions, but this was more pronounced in the Soviet system, notably in the case of Yuri Andropov, the KGB head who became Soviet leader from 1982 to 1984. He believed in the inherent mendacity of Western imperialist leaders and society and their willingness to wage war against the Soviet Union. This was, for instance, the reason he misperceived the 1983 NATO military exercise called Able Archer as a cover for a possible attack.
Particularly good on the first half of the Cold War, but weaker and far briefer on the 1970s and, even more, the 1980s, Mr. Budiansky’s engaging study offers contemporary policy markers much to contemplate. The simultaneous hostility of both China and Russia today ensures that the strategic situation is more challenging now than after the successful exploitation by President Nixon of the Sino-Soviet split. European neutralism and weakness does not help. In these circumstances, it is urgent to consider how best to use intelligence operations to defend national interests. It would of course be helpful if the latter were better understood.
Mr. Black’s books include “The Cold War: A Military History” and “Air Power: A Global History.”